The suits behind The Adjustment Bureau want you to believe that it’s a science fiction headspinner. An Inception for 2011. Or, based on some commercials, an action film pitting its star, Matt Damon, against enigmatic rivals a la the Bourne. While all three options sound good in theory, any one of those stylistic choices would most likely condemn The Adjustment Bureau into critical damnation for taking the easy way out. But, despite the possibly vitriolic responses that would’ve ensued, those are safe routes to take for a filmmaker, especially a first-time director like George Nolfi. Having written the screenplay for Ocean’s Twelve and co-written The Bourne Ultimatum, Nolfi’s an old collaborator of Damon’s, and could’ve easily bent over and shot a conventional film. Much respect to the man, then, for turning The Adjustment Bureau into something unlike anything the film’s marketing has implied. Light in tone, The Adjustment Bureau aims to strike a balance between romance and mythology, which, commendably, it does quite well.
The first interesting thing Nolfi did while conceiving The Adjustment Bureau was flipping its source material into a much broader piece without pissing on the original work’s integrity. Nolfi’s script is based on “The Adjustment Team,” a 1954 short story by the great sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, a favorite amongst Hollywood’s screenwriters when it comes to adaptation (his stories have been turned into movies such as Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, and others). Dick’s story is a much leaner and stone-faced piece of singular paranoia, focusing on one man’s run-ins with a mysterious organization that oversee every human being’s life path. In Nolfi’s hands, “The Adjustment Team” is expanded upon immensely; here, Damon plays a young, appealing New York City politician who has a random encounter with a spunky ballerina (Emily Blunt), immediately falls in love with her, and then spends the remainder of the movie eluding the cock-blocking Adjustment Bureau. As the Bureau sees it, he was never supposed to pursue her, and by doing so he’s altering his destiny, preventing a future presidential bid, and ultimately harming the world. Any guy who’s dated a stripper in spite of his friends’ wishes can relate, though on a much smaller and less cinematic scale.
The Adjustment Bureau, first and foremost, benefits from a great cast, less prolifically but still importantly with the Bureau members themselves. Typical genre standards lend a certain robotic, blank-stare attitude to professionally dressed, antagonist enforcers of their kind—think back to the agents in The Matrix. But John Slattery—best known as the snarky and effortlessly cool Roger Sterling on AMC’s Mad Men—is too electric to play it like that; as the Bureau’s on-the-field shotcaller, he’s a compelling villain, one who’s not malevolent but instead disarming. In quieter ways, Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) connects equally as well, channeling steely reserve as Damon’s secret ally within the Bureau. The bad guys in The Adjustment Bureau aren’t megalomaniacal in any way; they’re simply hard-workers sticking to a preordained and ethereal plan.
The biggest surprise with Nolfi’s directorial debut, however, is how well it works on a romantic level. The Adjustment Bureau is the perfect date movie for guys who’ve already bought plane tickets for this year’s Comic-Con, finding clever ways to hit the soft spots without totally abandoning the fantasy. Like with its villainous Bureau players, The Adjustment Bureau’s central relationship is an exercise in advantageous casting. Damon’s politician character is a charmer, the kind of pundit who’ll snatch the youth vote by trading quips with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. For the actor himself, it’s a plum role, allowing him to indulge in playful charm, which is most evident during his first encounter with Blunt. The characters meet each other, by chance, in a swank hotel bathroom where flirtations and laughs flow—their chemistry is apparent right away. Not that it’d be difficult to vibe with Blunt; on top of being a first-class and graceful beauty, the English actress shines, whether her roles are underwritten (The Wolfman) or well-crafted (Sunshine Cleaning). In The Adjustment Bureau, she’s given a livewire to play, a free spirit with a quick tongue.
Together, Damon and Blunt secure The Adjustment Bureau as the film gradually flies off the rails. Charging into a finale complete with magical black hats, not so subtle religious leanings, and a random trip to Yankee Stadium, Nolfi begins tossing as many sci-fi goodies into the pot as possible; it’s as if Nolfi suddenly remembered he was adapting a Philip K. Dick story and wanted to appease the late writer’s fervent readership. The result is a tad chaotic, though not a deal-breaker, mainly because of Damon and Blunt. Their convincing interplay and affections are The Adjustment Bureau’s driving force. Oddly enough, Nolfi has concocted something any Hollywood suit should appreciate: a well-acted romantic drama equipped for both genders. Plus magical hats—you can’t forget about those.